“A historic first.” That is how Mick Antoniw describes the one-member-one-vote ballot taking place from next month to elect the next Welsh representative on UK Labour’s ruling national executive committee. “This is the first time ever that Wales will have a representative on there who is accountable to the membership in Wales,” the NEC candidate says as he talks me through the campaign that he and Mark Drakeford ran to reform the post.
“The only reason it happened is because Mark and myself and others campaigned.” Backing Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership bid in 2015 and standing for leader of the Welsh Labour party in 2018, Drakeford prioritised party democratisation – and the election of the NEC’s Welsh representative was a key part of his manifesto. As Antoniw set out in his statement for the 2020 NEC election, he was appointed by Drakeford because both shared the aim of implementing this democratising agenda.
Antoniw is already the Welsh representative, but the NEC post has changed. He currently holds the seat as one allocated to the leader of Welsh Labour, which makes Antoniw directly accountable to Drakeford rather than the membership. (The Scottish NEC seat is held directly by Richard Leonard.) “Part of Mark’s election campaign when he stood was that he was going to democratise this position,” Antoniw tells me. This year’s contest will be the first time that members in Wales have elected their representative to the party’s governing body.
This has implications for the nature of the post, Antoniw says. “At the moment, I regularly consult with the Welsh leader because that’s where my mandate comes from, but after November the mandate will be a far more diverse one,” he says. “The role of this job, if I’m selected for it, is very different to how it has been in the past.” If elected, he will consider himself to have a clear obligation not only to report back what happens on the NEC to constituencies, trade unions and other affiliated organisations in Wales, but also to seek their responses.
And he wants other parts of Labour’s NEC to change, too. “There is a need to look at the structure of the NEC because it doesn’t properly represent the regional structure within the UK as a whole,” he tells me. Antoniw hopes the “breakthrough change” of a directly elected Welsh rep is a sign of further reforms: “There is no other region of England or part of the UK that has this specific place [on the NEC], but I hope it’s indicative of a change to the structure of the NEC for the future.”
The incumbent wants the national ruling body to be more transparent, to publish more of what happens in its meetings and for rank-and-file members to have a greater understanding of its functions. But above all, the structure and regional representation comes to the fore in our interview: “The NEC and its structure doesn’t have any regional representation… It is still very much a structure that is based on the pre-devolution era.” The Welsh executive committee (WEC), like the Scottish one (SEC), has its local party representatives divided regionally (North Wales, South Wales West, etc) rather than as a single block. Calls have been made before to do the same for the NEC, but it was seen as an anti-left demand during the Corbyn era and rejected.
Crucially, though, Antoniw believes that it is not just the party’s governing body that should adjust further to devolution. He says there is a real need for Labour to shift the rhetoric towards one that reflects the increasingly devolved reality of government across the UK. “There has to be a greater understanding within shadow government of the fact that, very often, UK shadow ministers are speaking in effect as English ministers.” This means better coordination between UK Labour’s frontbench and equivalent representatives in other nations of the UK – including in Wales, where the party actually has power at a national level. “It’s an issue I am continuing to push and will continue to push,” Antoniw tells me.
Antoniw backed Corbyn ally Drakeford for leader in 2018 and then supported Corbyn to be leader of the UK Labour Party in 2015. But he backed Keir Starmer in the leadership contest this year, rather than Rebecca Long-Bailey. What is it about Starmer that attracted his support? “One of the reasons I support Keir was his commitment to constitutional reform,” the Welsh NEC rep tells me. “There is a very drastic need for UK Labour to seize the initiative on constitutional reform – on the issue of federalisation, decentralisation of power.” He cites the ‘radical devolution’ advocated by the now Labour leader when he was standing for the top job.
“The constitutional structure we have in the UK is not fit for purpose,” Antoniw argues. He says this has been exposed during the Covid crisis, with different parts of the UK seeing “effectively four-nation government”. Antoniw is clearly passionate about devolution, and has a wealth of knowledge on the subject. He says he could talk my ears off on the problems with the UK constitution, and I believe him. But his point is clear: “If the UK is to survive, there has to be a purpose to the UK. You have to actually define what the function and the purpose is of the UK and what the relationship within the UK is of the four nations.” The constitution does not currently allow for that, he says, and it is propelling the UK towards increasing fragmentation and a “break-up situation”. And as he argued recently in LabourList, the devolution debate inflamed again by the government’s controversial internal market bill presents an opportunity for Labour to become “the nations’ champion for progressive reform of the constitution”.
On the agenda for this NEC candidate is also pushing through change on parliamentary reselection processes – specifically, whether the reselection of MPs should be devolved to the Welsh Labour Party. It already has power over the selection and reselection of Senedd members and councillors, and the selection of Welsh MPs, but not over their reselection. A proposal to change that situation came before the NEC last year, with Antoniw drafting the motion. He laughs as he recalls a “sudden emergence of unity across the NEC against the proposal”. Antoniw remains undeterred: “We’re going to take the changes we want through the Welsh conference, and we’ll then come back to the NEC and say that ‘these now have the mandate from the membership within Wales’.”
My conversation with the self-described “socialist lawyer” leaves a clear impression of his focus; neither Labour’s structures nor those of the UK’s political institutions are fit for the changing political landscape. The changes he wants to see reflect that view, which was summed up by Mick Antoniw as such: “We are increasingly moving into ‘four-nation government’, even though the constitution isn’t quite up to that yet, and our political structure needs to keep up with that as well.”